Growing your own vegetables is a growing trend for people around the world, and hügelkultur is one method you can use to do this. There are many techniques you can use to grow plants and vegetables successfully, and your chosen method will mostly depend on the space you have available for your garden. So how does hügelkultur work, and is it the right gardening choice for you?
Hügelkultur is a permaculture method of growing food crops. A mound is formed by layering compostable vegetation, starting with dense woody vegetation in the center with subsequent outer layers of finer material, finishing with mature compost and mulch. Plants are planted in the top layer of compost.
When we grow our own food, we should be looking for a way to grow the plants in a way that closely mimics nature. The difference is that we give nature a helping hand to encourage the natural processes to work faster and for efficiently. Hügelkultur is a system that works in this way and may seem a little intimidating for beginners, but it is easier than you may think.
What Is Hügelkultur?
Hügelkultur is a form of permaculture that has proven to be a very successful method of growing food crops and many other types of plants. It requires careful planning and preparation of the garden beds to encourage nature in a controlled fashion.
As a beginner to this growing method, you may not be familiar with some of the terminology. Permaculture is a plant-growing philosophy that encompasses many growing techniques. The theory behind permaculture is to work with nature and incorporate traditional indigenous knowledge from historical growing methods.
It is in direct opposition to the industrial, mechanized commercial approach to farming and land management, where nature is taken out of the picture. In these modern farming methods, we try to force the ground to produce what we want by digging up the ground, planting in high density, and using chemicals to boost plant growth and protect the vegetable crops from disease and pests.
Permaculture is the opposite mindset where the farming practices work with nature and utilize natural processes to our advantage, rather than attempting to force nature into submission.
Hügelkultur is a technique the follows the permaculture principles of using nature to our advantage and get the best possible crops grown in a natural, eco-friendly manner. The goal is not only to have less of an impact on the natural environment but to also grow better, more nutrient-rich food crops.
Higher nutrient value in our crops means we need less to sustain ourselves since the food we consume provides a larger percentage of our nutrient needs, so we can eat less.
Hügelkultur is a technique the was used as the traditional farming practice in Eastern Europe and German cultures for hundreds of years. In modern times, the term was introduced by Herman Andra in 1962 in a gardening booklet he published in Germany, advocating the principle.
Hügelkultur is a German word that means hill culture, or mound culture, which differs from the modern flat-land cultivation methods. Hans Beba, another German author, and gardener also published books in the 1970s and 1980s, promoting the method as a highly successful permaculture technique.
Sepp Holzer from Austria, Paul Wheaton from the USA, and Geoff Lawton from Australia are modern farmers advocating Hügelkultur as a method that produces better than standard farming methods and promote it as the perfect form of permaculture.
The permaculture philosophy strives to create a self-sustaining, mini-ecosystem that provides a healthy growing environment for your plants.
- Holzer, Sepp (Author)
- English (Publication Language)
- 256 Pages - 04/11/2011 (Publication Date) - Chelsea Green Publishing (Publisher)
Last update on 2023-02-02 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API
How Does Hügelkultur Work?
The hügelkultur method involves constructing growing beds that have a simple composition but require some care as to their size and positioning.
This growing method uses layers of compostable vegetation of different densities that provide an ideal growing environment for vegetable crops.
The outer layers of the mound will decompose faster than the central, inner layers, which are of denser, harder material. As the layers of vegetation decompose, they provide nutrients to plants that are grown in the top layers of the mound.
The provision of nutrients is not the only benefit that this growing method offers for the plants and for gardeners, but we will discuss all the benefits of this growing method in another section below.
How To Build A Hügelkultur Bed
Although a large amount of space is not required to use this cultivation technique, an ideal length for the bed is about 6-feet or about 1.8-meters, but this is not a rule, and the length of the bed can be any size suitable for your space.
For the method to work well, it is important to stick to the principles for laying out the bed and the construction of the mound itself to create the right growing environment for your plants. While the construction is not difficult, the initial layout does require some labor, but that would be true of any other growing system as well.
The main process for building your own hügelkultur bed will involve the following main steps.
- Bed preparation. This involves doing the foundational groundwork, the degree of which is required depends on your base soil type.
- Layering the vegetation. This step is layering the vegetation in a particular sequence and shape to create the mound on which you will grow your plants.
- Curing and planting. This step will cover the final processes where you get to plant your vegetable crops in the bed and how to take care of them.
As we cover each step in the process, we will detail what you will need in the way of material to complete the steps.
Hugelkultur Mound Foundation
The foundation of the growing bed depends very much on the type of soil you have in your growing space. If you have wet, clay-type soil, it is recommended that the bed be constructed on top of the wet soil without any digging or trenching.
If your soil is sandy, it is recommended that the foundation of the bed is trenched. Depending on how compacted your ground is, you may need a pickaxe, but you will definitely need a spade to get the sand out of the trench. Save the soil that you remove from the trench; you can add this to the mound later.
The trench will be a tiered trench, with the central trench involving digging a shallow trench about 2.3-feet or 700mm wide. This central trench is where the larger material for the base will be seated and will prevent the bed from shifting.
This central trench will be in the middle of a higher-level trench that is not as deep but is about 3 times as wide as the central trench. This second trench will house the higher layers of the bed material. The overall width of the bed will be wider than this trench, with the final layers of the mound at normal ground level.
Hügelkultur Bed Preparation
Size And Position Of Hügelkultur Beds
The length of the beds for this growing style can be any length you like, depending on the size of the available growing space. This feature allows you to use this technique irrespective of the size of the land since you can customize the length.
The width of hügelkultur beds is generally about 3-feet, or about 910mm wide, with the maximum height of the bed being 3-feet, which will flatten out as the materials in the layers decompose.
An important aspect of the bed construction is the angle of the sloping sides toward the top of the mound. An angle on the mound that is too steep will cause layers to slip down the sides, and one that is too shallow will not provide enough depth to the bed. The ideal angle of the slopes is between 65 and 80-degrees.
If your ground is sloping, the ideal positioning for the bed is at an angle to the slope of the ground, not parallel to the slope as is typical in terraced gardening practices. This allows for an even distribution of runoff water from rain and watering across the length of the bed, making sure all areas of the bed get equal amounts of water.
Creating a hügelkultur bed may take a little work initially, but if the foundation of the bed is done correctly, it will last for years and not need to be re-done since subsequent planting years utilize the same base.
Structuring The Hügelkultur Mound Layers
In this step, we will get into the construction of the mound itself and the order in which the layers of vegetation should be put down to give the best results as the materials decompose over time.
You will need the following compostable material for the construction of your hügelkultur mound.
- Dense, woody vegetation. You will need enough woody material to cover the length of your bed. This material can be in the form of logs and large branches that you have trimmed from garden trees or accumulated via other means.
- Fallen leaves and cut leaves. This is the second base layer and helps to prevent the other layers from falling into the woody layer.
- Leaves, wood chips, and sticks mixed with soil. This will comprise the middle layers of the mound.
- Partially rotted compost. This can include partially rotted compost, kitchen scraps, and even horse manure or cow manure that has not yet completely decomposed.
- Topsoil mixed with compost. This will be your top layer, where your seeds of plants will be planted and grow.
- A layer of mulch. Mulch can be straw, fallen leaves, pine needles, wood chips, or any other suitable material for mulch.
First Layer – Woody Material
This is the layer at the base of the mound and consists of material that will take the longest to decompose and will also add structure and stability to the rest of the mound. This woody layer will also absorb moisture and retain moisture in the bed.
The wood used in this layer is typically large chunks of wood and logs that provide a stable support for the rest of the bed. Hardwoods can be used and will take a long time to break down, but they will make the bed last longer.
Softwoods can also be used and offer better water retention in the bed, but they will decompose faster, and the level of the bed will drop more quickly. The ideal for the woody layer would be a combination of hard and softwood for a more even mix.
As this wood decomposes, it uses up nitrogen before it releases it as compost, so you can add some horse of cow manure at this level to boost the nitrogen levels. Large gaps between big pieces of wood can be filled in with some soil to prevent upper layers from collapsing into these spaces.
Certain woods are better than others in this base layer of the mound. Never use treated wood that can potentially leech harmful chemicals and toxins into the soil.
Oak, maple, willow, alder, cottonwood, and applewood all work very well, as do birch and poplar. The types of wood to avoid using are any treated lumber, as well as black walnut, which releases toxins, and redwood, which takes a long time to decompose, and the compost from this wood can stop seeds from germinating.
You may have different species of trees growing in your region, which may have similar characteristics which could prove detrimental to the success of your hügelkultur bed, so always do your research regarding the wood you are using as the base layer.
Once you have laid down the wood layer, give it a good soaking with water so that the layer will not absorb too much moisture from the subsequent layers in the mound. As the wood in this layer decomposes, the wood becomes more porous, which increases its water-holding ability, which is good for the bed.
Second Layer – Leaf layer
The next layer in the sequence of the hügelkultur mound is a leaf layer or green layer. This layer can be made up of a combination of fallen leaves and green leaves, or cut leaves, or smaller branches with leaves on them.
This leafy layer acts as a barrier between the woody layer beneath and subsequent layers of smaller material that could fall into the woody layer. The green material contains moisture which will help to increase the moisture level in the mound.
After placing each layer on the mound, you should give it a good watering to settle it in before applying the next layer.
Third Layer – Sticks Wood Chips, Leaves, And Soil
This layer is made up of medium-sized branches and sticks, wood chips, and soil, which fills in all the gaps between the organic material.
The material in this layer is much smaller in size and will decompose much faster than the larger pieces of wood in the first layer in the mound.
Because this material is closer to the surface and it decomposes faster, it will provide nutrients to the plants in the medium to long term, when the roots of the plants extend down to this level or the upper layers settle.
Remember to add water before moving on to add the next layer to the mound.
Fourth Layer – Partially Rotted Compost
The next layer is a generous layer of partially rotted compost. This layer can be quite thick because it will decompose faster than the previous layers, and it will give some depth to the bed. A thicker layer will also provide a constant supply of nutrients to the growing plants for longer.
This layer has larger particles in the mixture than mature compost, which helps with the aeration of the bed and with moisture retention. As this layer decomposes, it will provide warmth and nutrients as it develops into a rich mature compost.
As with the previous layers, water this layer in to bed it down and improve the moisture content in the bed.
Fifth Layer – Topsoil With Mature Compost
The fifth layer is the actual growing medium for the seeds and plants. This layer should also be generous and quite thick to give the plants space to develop a good root system before they get to the partially decomposed compost layer beneath.
If the roots grow too quickly through this layer and penetrate the layer beneath, the roots could become burned from the actively decomposing compost in the layer below.
This layer should be made up of a mixture of topsoil and mature compost, which will provide good quality nutrients to the growing plants and hold moisture well in this top layer.
Water this layer before adding the final mulch layer to the mound.
The final layer on the mound is the mulch layer, which serves multiple functions for the bed and the plants growing in it.
The multi-purpose mulch layer offers the following benefits to the hügelkultur mound and your plants.
- Weed suppression. The mulch layer covering helps to suppress weed growth in the bed. The odd weed seed is bound to find its way into the bed, and the mulch layer will help to discourage the growth of the seeds by not allowing them to come into contact with the growing medium or by suppressing light availability to the soil beneath.
- Moisture retention. The mulch layer helps to prevent moisture loss from the top layer of the bed through evaporation. This is of particular importance in hot, dry climates.
- Temperature control. Mulch helps to keep plants’ roots cool on hot days and protects the plants’ roots from frost in the colder times of the year. The mulch layer helps to regulate the temperature around the base of the plants to be more constant.
- Additional nutrients. If you are using an organic mulch material, it will decompose over time and release nutrients into the top layer of the mound that the growing plants can take advantage of.
There are various materials you can use for mulch, such as wood chips, sawdust, pine needles, fallen leaves, straw, hay, shredded sugar cane, coconut hair, or coir, or even shredded cardboard or newspaper.
Hügelkultur Bed Layer Profile
There will be some settling of the organic layers in your hugelkultur bed, but this is to be expected, and you can just top up the top layer with more topsoil/compost mix.
Can You Plant In Your Hügelkultur Bed Immediately?
There is some controversy over this point when implementing hügelkultur, and some people advocate leaving the bed or mound to cure for two or three months before planting in the bed.
The theory behind waiting for a curing period is to give the partially composted layer to decompose further so that it will not burn plants’ roots that may reach this layer while the decomposition is too hot.
Others say that it is okay to plant immediately in the bed, and there is no need to wait for a curing period.
The answer is that you can do either, but if you plant straight away, you need to make sure that your top growing layer is deep enough that the young plant’s roots will not get to the next layer that is still actively decomposing, as their roots my burn.
I may be an impatient gardener, so I prefer to make sure the top layer is deep enough, and I plant immediately in the bed. My results have been good this far, and none of the plants have suffered any ill effects from this practice.
Planting in the Hügelkultur Bed
Once your bed is constructed, you can choose to plant immediately or wait for 2 or 3 months to give the bed time to cure.
When it is time to plant, you can plant your crops anywhere on the mound, bearing in mind the taller plants should be located toward the bottom of the mound and the shorter plants near the top, so they do not get shaded out.
Any vegetable crops can be grown on a hügelkultur bed, but you should still follow the principles of companion planting and rotating the types of crops in the bed.
What Are The Benefits Of Hügelkultur?
Hugelkultur offers many benefits as a growing method that provide a greater level of success in areas where it may be difficult to grow plants directly in the ground.
The following are the main benefits that this permaculture method offers the gardener.
- Overcome poor soil. If the soil in your garden is not of good quality, it can take many years to re-vitalize or repair the soil to the point that it can sustain good, healthy crops. Hügelkultur provides a way to speed up this process by growing above the poor soil. As the organic material decomposes in the mound, it will naturally improve the natural ground below.
- Moisture retention. The bed is designed to retain moisture to prevent the bed from drying out too quickly.
- Good drainage. The gaps and pockets in the mound offer good drainage for the higher levels in the bed, so it is very difficult to overwater plants that are planted in this type of bed.
- Extended growing season. The decomposing organic material keeps the mound warmer into the colder months than the surrounding ground. This allows you to grow longer into the winter and also start your growing earlier at the end of winter. This helps to extend your growing season for greater yield.
- Constant nutrients. The decomposing organic material in the bed will constantly be replenishing the nutrients in the bed to grow healthy plants that will yield good crops.
What Is The Best Way To Implement Hügelkultur?
There are many ways that you can implement this technique for growing. You can use the traditional method of setting the bed up on the ground, or you can implement the method in other ways.
If you have limited garden growing space, you can even use the same principles in a large pot, stacking the layers according to the description but on a smaller scale in the confines of the pot.
My favorite way to utilize the hügelkultur method is in a raised garden bed. The sides of the raised garden bed offer a containment structure for the layers and a straight surface for planting.
As long as you keep to the basic principles, you can use this technique in any way that catches your imagination!
Hügelkultur is a permaculture technique that many gardeners have tried and proven to be a successful and efficient method of growing not only food crops but other plants as well.
This method is scalable, so you can apply the principles no matter the size of your growing space. The benefits of water retention in the bed, access to an abundant nutrient supply for the plants, and the extension of the growing season make this method a successful technique to implement.
The hügelkultur method has shown great success, even in climates that are not conducive to vegetable growing or in poor soil quality areas.
If you are looking for alternative growing methods, this is certainly one that I would recommend, and the process is easy, even for beginner gardeners!
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